Tag Archives: King Zog

Into Zog Territory

The big push to upload posts from last summer continues… This time we take a short break from trudging around the Çermenika massif and instead head north, to the Mati district of Albania.

The road to Macukull

Our first glimpse of Macukull. The road is fairly good by Albanian standards

The purpose of our visit was a research trip on behalf of the son of one of the Special Operations Executive officers who served in Albania during World War II, Captain Frank Smyth. Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies sent Smyth north to work with Squadron Leader Tony Neel, who was liaising with the Zogist forces, such as they were, led by Enver Hoxha’s arch-enemy Abas Kupi. In the confused events following Davies’ capture by the Germans in early January 1944, Smyth found himself in the village of Macukell, being sheltered by a branch of the Kola family. Smyth by then was under the command of a certain Captain Bulman, who does not appear to have covered himself in glory during his stint in Albania (Bulman was despised by his fellow officers and also most Albanians who encountered him).

On 11 January Bulman and Smyth, who was then very sick, were joined by Major George Seymour, who took command. He was followed soon after by the Germans –

“As it was no part of our policy to be the cause of Albanian villages being burnt and the people massacred I decided that, if I could evacuate vital stores without fighting, I wold do so. We did just manage it and, although we were still in sight of the house when the Germans arrived, we were undetected in the dusk. The Germans fired a light as a success signal an this was answered from two other directions… Smythe (sic) and I… remained in the vicinity of Macukull to watch events. The following morning the Germans burnt our house and then pushed on northwards…”
From the Seymour Report in the National Archives (HS5/123) 

The Kola family later in the year sheltered Lt Col ‘Billy’ McLean and Major David Smiley, and had another house burnt for their efforts. Houses being destroyed does seem to be a bit of a recurring theme for Albanians who hosted British officers during the war.

Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip and myself set out for Macukull in late August 2013 with little idea of what to expect. I’d driven through the Mati before in the grey of winter, so was interested to see it in summertime. And very pleasant it was too. The drive to the region’s biggest town, Burrell, took about two-and-a-half hours from Tirana, with the inevitable coffee stop. Burrell is nothing to write home about, its only landmark being a statue of local hero King Zog in the town square.

A rope bridge over the Mati river

A rope bridge across the Mati, en route to Burrell

We parked and headed for the busiest café, and asked if anyone knew if the road to Macukull was in a good state. There was surprise that anyone would want to go to Macukull; Elton explained our interest in the war history, one thing led to another and soon we were joined by three very nice chaps, Demir Çupi, Skënder Gjuci and Kujtim Sulmeta. Out came a few of the S.O.E. memoirs we were carrying with us and a lengthy discussion began, including the old favourite topic of conversation, ‘Why do so few tourists visit Albania?’

Men in Burrell

In Burrell we met (from left) Kujtim Sulmeta, Demir Çupi and Skënder Gjuci, who were all WWII buffs

More usefully, all three men knew the Kolas and were familiar with Albania’s convoluted war history, and two of them – Skënder and Kujtim – were at a loose end so were happy to take a day trip to Macukull with us.

The drive took us past King Zog’s old family seat, Burgajet Castle. Or where it used to sit, anyway – the Communists had taken particular care to destroy it utterly. I was surprised there wasn’t a six-metre statue of a brave Partisan fighter taking a symbolic dump on the site.

Shortly afterwards we left the main road and took a dirt track up into the mountains. Macukull, it turns out, occupies a particularly dramatic piece of real estate, with wonderful views across the Mati. It had clearly been a relatively wealthy village, though its loyalty to King Zog cost it dear during Enver Hoxha’s glorious rule.

Skënder and Kujtim guided us ever higher, up to the site of the old Kola house (there would have been several, this was the grandest). Nothing, literally nothing, remains. Kujtim pointed to the school in the far distance – a typically ugly rectangular block. The Kolas hadn’t exactly been flavour of the month with the Communists, so the house had been torn down and its stones used to build the school.

The Zogist Salute

Kujtim Sulmeta, Skënder Gjuci and Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip demonstrate the Zogist salute on the site of the Kola house, destroyed first by the Germans and then the Communists

A branch of the Kola family still live next door, and were in the process of building what appeared to be a small castle of their own. Rather worryingly for their future health, within six metres of a mobile phone mast. We were invited into their old, much more modest – and charming – house for lunch. Which turned out to be one of the best village lunches Elton and I have had (and we’ve had a fair few now). Macukull’s raki turned out to be excellent too.

Over lunch we were told of the Kola family’s resistance to the dictatorship, and how Bilal Kola, a friend of David Smiley’s, had been cornered and shot in the early 1950s after holding out in the mountains with a small band of rebels for the best part of a decade. His remains were only returned to the village after the collapse of Communism (Hoxha seems to have been particularly vindictive when it came to people’s remains; he had the British war graves in Tirana destroyed in the late 1940s).

The Doçi family in Macukull, Albania

The very lovely Doçi family pose with Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip after a long and delicious lunch

After lunch we went for a tour of Macukull, which like many Albanian villages is spread out over a huge area. We stopped in the grimy café for a coffee (and raki). We were reminded how raw the wounds caused by the war still are – the café owner got quite morose about life under the Communists and asked me why the hell we (the British) hadn’t just landed a couple of thousand troops in 1944 and prevented Hoxha grabbing power; and while we were on the subject what had we been doing arming the Communists anyway? Fair enough questions.

An old house in Macukull, Albania

Kujtim Sulmeta shows us one of the old houses that survive, just, in Macukull

The rest of out tour had little relevance to war history, but we did find a few beautiful old stone houses in the process of collapsing – Macukull’s population, around 4,000 20 years ago, has fallen to 1,300 today. And we found more raki, inevitably (one of the pitfalls of visiting Albanian villages is that everyone, but everyone, wants to invite you in for a coffee and raki).

Back in Tirana a few days later I caught up with a modern-day Kola, also named Bilal, a successful lawyer. We met at the British Chamber of Commerce, appropriately enough. Bilal studied in England in the 1990s, staying for three months with the Tory MP and ex-S.O.E. officer Julian Amery. Bilal also spent some time staying with David Smiley, who remained embittered, 50 years on, at Britain’s support for Enver Hoxha and the Communists in 1943-44. (In contrast Amery’s main gripe was that Bilal arrived without any bottles of the Macukull raki he had enjoyed so much in summer 1944.)

Bilal Kola

Bilal Kola nails his colours to the mast. His family and the Communist regime did not see eye-to-eye

(Rather randomly, Bilal’s English skills led him to being recruited as guide and translator for the British comedian Norman Wisdom, when he visited Albania in 2001 at the same time as the England football squad. Wisdom was one of the few Western film stars whose movies were permitted by the Communist regime, and is a comedy legend for Albanians of a certain age; he attracted more press attention than David Beckham.)

We’ll be heading back to Macukull in the next few weeks, but in the meantime you might like to check out this gallery of photographs on the popular ‘social networking’ website Facebook.

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 31 October to 7 November 1943

Sorting supplies at Bizë. Actually taken in the summer of 1944, but much the same activity would have taken place in Trotsky's day (National Archives)

Sorting supplies at Bizë. Actually taken in the summer of 1944, but much the same activity would have taken place in Trotsky’s day (National Archives)

Apologies for falling behind so quickly. As well as these brief posts on what the SPILLWAY mission was up to 70 years ago, I have several posts to get up on my exploration of the Çermenika mountains over the summer and autumn, as I trace the route taken by Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, Enver Hoxha and co as they attempted to escape German encirclement in winter 1943/44. Hopefully I’ll get them all up by Christmas… Who’d have thought a simple blog about long-forgotten events in Albania 70 years ago could be so time-consuming? 

Sunday 31 October saw the first meeting between Davies and Enver Hoxha. It’s pretty strained – Hoxha is convinced that Davies is an intelligence officer rather than a regular soldier co-opted by the Special Operations Executive, and refuses to believe that the Brits’ brief is simply to fight the Germans. He even comes to the conclusion that the mission’s true purpose is to prepare the ground for a return by King Zog (or so he claims later in his memoirs). When Davies tells him that he won’t supply arms to the partisans if they use them to fight their fellow Albanians, Hoxha hits the roof.

Monday is a depressing day – the weather is getting colder at the Bizë HQ and the partisans present a few German prisoners who plead with Davies to help him. He can do nothing and assumes they were shot.

Tuesday is freezing cold. Two members of the Balli Kombetar (nationalist Albanian group opposed to the communists) arrive to announce that the Zogist leader Abas Kupi is at nearby Shengjergj. Davies and Nicholls enjoy a beautiful horse ride to the village, meet Kupi, and are then eaten alive by bed bugs when they sleep over.

Wednesday sees an inept broadcast by the BBC Albanian service guaranteed to alienate the entire country, both nationalist and communist. Davies sends a furious cable to Cairo, and also asks them to get the BBC to denounce by name the Regency Council installed by the Germans. This creates a kerfuffle in Cairo as SOE’s Albania advisor, Margaret Hasluck, had been the lover of the regent Lef Nosi before the war, and is still deeply in love with him. In the nearby village of Labinot, Enver Hoxha releases a letter declaring war on the Balli Kombetar and any Albanians who don’t support the partisans.

Lt Col Nicholls’ health is deteriorating, and he spends most of Thursday sick. In the evening Michael Lis, a Polish officer, arrives at Bizë and walks through the camp guard without being challenged and (wrongly) reports the death of a British mission in the Dibra region.

Enver Hoxha visits on Friday and stays for a cheerful lunch. Artillery can be heard in the distance. The partisan leader Kadri Hoxha is furious to discover that Davies has named his horse Kadri.

Nicholls remains ill with dysentery on Saturday 6 November. News is filtering through that civil war has broken out.

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The first post

So, here we go. This is the first post of new blog. Over the spring and summer of 2013 I’ll be following in the footsteps of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) across Albania.

Created by Churchill to “set Europe ablaze”, in Albania SOE only ever managed to create a small puff of acrid smoke. Here, I’ll be exploring why – and exploring the spectacular mountains and valleys where SOE’s agents operated.

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 10.18.41

I was introduced to the subject by my friend Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip. I was staying in Tirana, at his charming Villa With Star (a corner of a 1930s villa, now surrounded by tower blocks and with an uncertain future), when he handed me a copy of Roderick Bailey’s The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle. I was then pretty much out of circulation for 24 hours. It is a quite incredible story, brilliantly told by Bailey, with a tragic sign-off. Could SOE have been responsible for the 40 years of Communist dictatorship that followed the war? Bailey, after carefully sifting the evidence, reckons not, but till their deaths many of the BLOs (British Liaison Officers) who served in Albania were convinced otherwise.

Postscript aside, it’s certainly doubtful that SOE’s activities in Albania shortened the war by even a minute. What can’t be doubted, however, is the bravery of the men who dropped in by parachute, or slipped across the Adriatic, dodging German E-Boats, by night.

To my mind, the story of SOE in Albania can be split into four parts. First, the period up to April 1943, with the only activity on the ground being an ill-conceived 1941 mission led by Dayrell Oakley-Hill, one of King Zog’s ex-gendarmes, who was soon forced to surrender to the Germans and spent the next two-and-a-half-years as a prisoner-of-war. Second, Major Neil “Billy” McLean’s and David Smiley’s misspelled CONCENSUS mission, from April to October ’43. Third, October ’43 to February ’44 – Brigadier EF “Trotsky” Davies’ SPILLWAY mission, culminating in his wounding and capture by the Germans and the death of his second-in-command, Arthur Nicholls (who remains the only member of the Coldstream Guards to be awarded the George Cross). The fourth and final part runs from April ’44 to 1945 and war’s end, when the true nature of the Hoxha regime was becoming clear, and the bitter recriminations among BLOs began.

I say “final”, but in truth there was an unsatisfactory epilogue – a bizarre and amateurish joint MI6/CIA attempt to oust Hoxha in the late Forties and early Fifties. Roderick Bailey promises to turn his attention to this story in due course – I can’t wait.

Illyrian Venture, by Brigadier E. F. "Trotsky" Davies

Illyrian Venture, by Brigadier E. F. “Trotsky” Davies

The main focus of this blog will be Part Three – the winter of 1943/44. Why? The 70th anniversary is coming up, for one thing. For another, the area of Albania where most of the action took place – the mountains to the east of Tirana – is remarkably unspoiled and just a delight to explore. Key to the story is Illyrian Venture, the postwar memoir by Brig Davies. It’s an incomplete tale, which glosses over some key facts (of which more later). But when read alongside the mission diary kept by Nicholls, which Roderick Bailey managed to unearth in his research and is now available to view in the Imperial War Museum in London, and various documents held in the National Archives which have only recently been declassified (some files are still closed), a clear picture of events does begin to emerge.

I’ll leave you with this quote, from “Trotsky” Davies himself, which goes to show if nothing else that they don’t make ’em like they used to. Here he reminisces about the hours after he had been shot, and dragged into a sheepfold by his bodyguard, Sergeant Smith, along with an Italian colonel inconveniently dumped on the British party a few days earlier by Enver Hoxha…

“Col. Barbacinto was hit through the base of the neck,” writes Davies, “he was delirious and making an awful fuss. I roared at him to pull himself together and shut up that bloody noise. He continued to moan and roll his eyes.”

There’ll be more of this sort of thing over the coming months, along with (hopefully) useful travel advice for anyone visiting Albania.

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